Medal of Honor recipient hopes to challenge stigma of post-traumatic stress
By HAL BERNTON | The Seattle Times | Published: July 29, 2013
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Before he got word he will receive the Medal of Honor for his heroics in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter planned to tackle a new assignment at the Warrior Transition Battalion, where he would help injured and ill soldiers cope with the kind of emotional trauma he experienced after the battle at Combat Outpost Keating.
Now, with an Aug. 26 date at the White House to receive the medal from President Barack Obama, Carter says he won’t be headed to the Warrior Transition Battalion. Thrust onto a national stage, he hopes to be a voice for those who wrestle with post-traumatic stress.
“If they let me, I would be honored to do it,” Carter told reporters Monday. “There is a lot of stigma about it still. The Army treats it as if it’s a combat wound — because it is a combat wound. It’s something that takes time to heal. And the best way to do that is to utilize the facilities the Army provides … and whatever else is necessary, like family.”
Carter said that counseling — and support from his wife, Shannon, and three children — has helped him through difficult times since the battle at Combat Outpost Keating on Oct. 3, 2009, when he repeatedly risked his life to try to save a wounded soldier.
Another Army comrade, who survived the 2009 assault, later died because of what Carter said was post-traumatic stress.
Born in Spokane, Carter fought at COP Keating while serving with a unit from Fort Carson, Colo. He currently is assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Carter said he got a call from Obama several weeks ago informing him that he would receive the medal. He said he felt privileged to even be considered, and the award was not his alone but belonged to all the soldiers who fought with him in 2009. For Carter, the memories of that day are still raw.
Several times Monday, as he recounted the battle, the tall, lean 33-year-old choked back tears and stopped talking as he held his wife’s hand and gathered his emotions.
The day began like so many others as he awoke around 6 o’clock to the sounds of machine-gun fire, not something out of the ordinary at Combat Outpost Keating, situated in a valley in eastern Afghanistan and vulnerable to attack from nearby high ground.
When he got out of bed, put on his gear and went outside, the ferocity of the incoming rounds signaled something very different, as some 400 Taliban fighters began a sustained attack lasting six hours. The outpost was manned by 54 soldiers from the Colorado-based 61st Cavalry Regiment, Fourth Brigade Combat Team. The attack eventually claimed the lives of eight of Carter’s fellow soldiers and injured more than 25, including Carter.
The Army narrative describing that day’s actions covers 13 pages, starting with Carter sprinting some 100 meters across open ground to give ammunition to soldiers and ending as Carter — injured from a concussion and shrapnel wounds — provides sniper fire to cover soldiers retrieving the bodies of fallen comrades. The soldiers successfully defended the post from being overrun.
Much of the narrative centers on the effort to rescue Spc. Stephan Mace, a 21-year-old soldier struck by enemy fire in an exposed position. Carter was initially ordered by his superior — Sgt. Bradley Larson — to not try the rescue because of the near certainty Carter would die trying.
“A long time ago I told myself, if I was ever placed in a combat situation … I wouldn’t let fear make my decisions for me,” said Carter, who was an Army specialist at the time of the battle.
When Mace was there, it was hard to think about anything else.
“When I saw Mace, and was told I couldn’t get to him, it broke my heart,” Carter said Monday. “A good man was laying there begging for my help. But Larson, he knew that if I went out there, I would be dead, too. And for that I owe him my life.”
Eventually, Carter did make it to Mace’s side, stopped his bleeding and placed a tourniquet on a shattered leg. Then he carried Mace to the temporary shelter of a Humvee, and — with the help of Larson — across some 100 meters of open ground swept by enemy fire.
Carter’s father, Mark Carter, an electrician who lives in Antioch, Calif., says his son while a teenager lost an older brother in a Spokane shooting. He is convinced his son during the heat of battle was determined to try to save another brother — Mace.
“That may have magnified his actions on that day, even though he may not have realized that,” Mark Carter said. “That was the kicker. He did not want to lose another brother.”
Carter is the fifth living soldier from Afghanistan and Iraq to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor for personal acts of valor. One of those soldiers is another survivor of the assault on Combat Outpost Keating. Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha received the medal in February. On Monday, Carter described how hard it has been for him to see the families of those who died, including Mace, who was airlifted out of COP Keating but later died.
When asked about his initial reaction to learning he was up for the Medal of Honor, Carter once again spoke of those who had died.
“I was still going through some difficulties then, and I was so concerned by the men we lost, my good friends, that it didn’t even faze me … I didn’t feel angry that we lost them … I just felt the loss. “
On Monday, he had a different take.
“The award is not mine alone. I am grateful for the service of all the soldiers whom I fought with that day and would like to express my sincere condolences to the families of those who did not make it back.”
Staff Sgt. Jimmy Justice, a section leader, and Spc. Ty Carter sight in their M14 sniper rifles at the Observation Point Fritsche helicopter landing zone, June 2009, as an Afghan National Army soldier observes. The Soldiers wanted to collect data on how their bullets traveled at that particular altitude.